Santu Mofokeng, photographs: 'the violence is in the knowing'

14 Mar 2013

Born in 1956, Santu Mofokeng formed part of the Afrapix Collective that engaged in exposé and documentary photography of anti-apartheid resistance and social conditions during the 1980s in South Africa. However, Mofokeng was an increasingly important internal critic of mainstream photojournalism, and of the ways black South Africans were represented in the bigger international picture economy during the political struggle. Eschewing scenes of violence and the third-party view of white-on-black brutality in particular, he began his profound explorations of the everyday and spiritual dimensions of African life, both in the city and in the countryside. His formal techniques favor “fictions” that contain smoke, mist, and other matters and techniques that occlude rather than expose. Using angularity and ambivalence, he also ruptures realist expectations and allows space for the uncanny and the supernatural. He works with the notion of seriti (a northern seSotho term encompassing aura, shadow, power, essence, and many other things). The essay follows strands in Mofokeng’s writings and statements in relation to certain of his photographs, most recently repositioned in the substantial 2007 exhibition Invoice, to argue that he has pushed for a desecularization and Africanization of photography from the 1980s to the present. In more recent work the scourge of apartheid has been replaced by the HIV/AIDS virus, a mutation of nature, exacerbating the spiritual insecurities of many people in postapartheid South Africa. The essay concludes that Mofokeng’s work poses a critique of the parallel paradigms of Marxist-influenced social history and documentary photography in 1980s South Africa, both still highly influential, by attempting to reinsert aura (seriti) into photography and by highlighting what secular Marxism has concealed and proscribed.